I’ve had two recent exchanges with small business people. In both cases they were struggling and looking for alternative ways to earn a livable income. On the face of it there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have been able to do just that with their current efforts. If you took a dispassionate look at both, you would think that they should be able to generate a good income. They were both educated, in one case it was a master’s level education. They were both highly qualified for their specific services they were trying to provide. On that note it was services, not products. Services are the best route forward for generating a livable wage. I’ve lamented in the past about how selling someone else’s product is not a path to success for various reasons. These two business people understood that quite well. In fact they had both been scratching out a living for several years.
It could be argued that their products and services didn’t resonate with what people were willing to pay for or they simply didn’t charge what they were worth. Unfortunately this point was a bit moot too because both had been in their fields long enough to know where to pivot to make the maximum amount of revenue and also they knew what pitfalls they should be avoiding in the business. As I said, they are professionals, i.e. bright individuals who knew what they were doing.
In both cases I counseled that they consider moving to full time employment. In both cases they considered it but valued the flexibility of self employment over being tied to an organization. We of course discussed ways to ramp up their own personal productivity, i.e. to refocus on potential areas of growth and increased revenue.
They were not lazy. They worked like normal human beings. They got up when their body woke them or if they had an appointment that they needed to be up for but they were smart enough to not purposefully schedule early morning appointments. They worked hard during the working hours. They responded to life’s emergencies as they happened, not wasting time but taking the appropriate amount of time to clear the challenges. They also spent the appropriate and reasonable amount of time learning advanced skills in their respective fields. So why couldn’t they earn a living?
It hit me a few days later. They were acting normal. They were responding in a perfectly reasonable way to the demands of life while being as productive as can be reasonably expected by an average human being. In short they couldn’t compete with the unreasonable nature of the modern era’s hyper productive organization.
Organizations demand very unreasonable things out of their employees. When I say unreasonable, I mean as it relates to productivity. Let’s look at working hours. If you think about it, having a population that is expected to be at work at 8am every single morning, no matter what the various situations of the individuals are, is rather unnatural. Everyone has their own specific life situation and although there most likely will be some sort of communal average as well as consistency on an individual level it won’t meet the expectations that modern organizations have about the proper time for getting to work. In a world where there were not requirements to be in at a specific time, you’d probably hear something like “Most people get in between 9 and 9:30 but Joe always gets here at 10:30 and Mike always is in his office at 7am” And that’s the crux of this. Organizations demand the unnatural. In the above scenario the only person who would hit the expected arrival time of 8am is Mike.
A great real world example of this comes from Charlie Ergan, former CEO of Echostar/Dish Network. Charlie, as he was referred to in the industry, is known as a relentless taskmaster. He expected all employees to be at the office during office hours no matter if they worked late or not. There are stories about senior executives getting ‘written up’ for not coming in to the office on time after working until well after midnight. Any normal and reasonable response to working that late would be to sleep in and come in mid morning the next day. That’s not most of corporate America and especially not Mr. Ergans organization. Even in more employee centric organizations if there is some flexibility with scheduling when working odd hours there is usually a subtle pressure to be in the office with the rest of the group.
Another example that more closely correlates to the two individuals would be number of service or sales calls expected out of a company rep in a day. Let’s say a normal load would be providing two service calls that fix the problem of whatever is broken while providing exemplary customer service. This makes perfect sense for anything that requires a reasonable amount of time. The tech would wake up, prepare for the jobs, go to the first job, have lunch, then go to the next job, and close out the day. In my experience, this is reasonable and allows for the time needed not only to do a good job but allows a buffer for the unexpected, which happens with regularity in this type of outreach role. This is NOT how it happens in most outreach positions. Corporations always push for the best case scenario out of a drive for the highest levels of productivity. Management would expect three to five calls in a day on a permanent basis. Of course something has to give. Either the service level suffers, appointments are missed, the employee has to put in 12-14 hour days six to seven days a week to keep from losing the job, or the product doesn’t get fixed properly, etc. If your a shareholder this makes perfect sense when considering productivity and resulting profitability but for the individual, not so much. These are the type of burn and churn positions that drive our modern transitional workforce based economy. The job hopping happens because the situation of working 14 hours a day is not just unsustainable it’s simply unnatural.
Going back to the two small business people, they are professionals, and they can do the 14 hour days 7 days a week but they also know they can’t keep that pace up forever. Short term is a different story. They would both do it during a busy season and they would both do it to make up for some other variable that forces the higher level of productivity, but they wouldn’t structure their entire business model around it. They are providing quality products and services at reasonable prices and at a level that’s sustainable long term.
This really is how business existed before the rise of the Industrial Age. Corporations didn’t really exist. Crafts people and services people put in ‘a day’s work for a day’s pay’. It was the whole concept of ‘a full time job’ coupled with the rise of the corporations and resulting metrics driven management that drove the humanity out of the job market. That’s the point of this, people can’t work at a natural and normal level and expect to be able to make a living when they are competing with corporations that push their people to operate at unnatural levels of productivity. It’s sustainable for the organization but few individuals can spend an entire career working 12 hour days 6 days a week. There is historical precedent for this. There were high incidents of suicide and substance abuse in the population that moved from the farms to the factories in the early part of the industrial age because people didn’t know how to cope with a lifestyle that was so alien.
In defense of the corporations in the modern era, they have created a period of wealth heretofore unforeseen in the whole of human history. Historically if you worked in a way that was natural and normal your productivity would simply not generate as much wealth as you would if you were working to the levels expected by the modern economies. Unfortunately this wealth has come, in part, at the expense of the employees quality of life. The stories are legion about ‘working to death’ and anxiety attacks driven by ‘stress’. This all comes from people doing things that are unnatural.
Irony moment. We are at a point in history where corporations are getting on the all-natural bandwagon. Green products and services are everywhere. Billions are being made every year on quality of life enhancing offerings, yet work, one of the biggest elements to anyone’s quality of life is not really changing in any macro way. There will always be the family friendly company, but you only hear about these offerings in very tight job markets. Otherwise it’s business as usual.
I think the two individuals who I started this story with personify a choice we all make that aligns to the old adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. My two friends struggle with the fact that they can’t win but are still trying to do it. For the rest of us, we’ve figured it out, if we want more of what life has to offer then we have to “join ‘em”. Unfortunately this means that unless you have a unique personality that likes to work 24/7 then the choice amounts to a life won’t feel ‘right’ or ‘normal’. You’ll always be stressed, never have enough time to get things done that need to be done at work or outside of it, and will continually be under pressure to deliver more and more. None of that will make anyone feel ‘normal’ but most who live this lifestyle will have the wealth benefits that the modern large organizations can provide. I have to admit that although I feel for my friends who can’t ever really compete well with modern business realities, I do envy that they get to live a more normal life than nearly anyone else I know. Unfortunately for me, and most others in the professional workforce, the only thing that feels ‘normal’ about our modern work environment is that everyone else is living a life that can be seen as just as abnormal.
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